Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Freud and Darwinian Just So Stories

Moses by Jusepe de Ribero (1638). Image from Wikipedia.

Joel Kontinen

It is no secret that just so stories thrive in Neo-Darwinian explanations of the past. Based more on imagination than data, they get their name from Nobelist Rudyard Kipling’s 1902 collection Just So Stories for Little Children.

Recently, I read Sigmund Freud’s book Moses and Monotheism (1939). The Father of Psychoanalysis was not averse to similar tales, either.

In Moses and Monotheism Freud’s attempts to build a “general theory of monotheism”. He tries to convince his readers that Moses was actually an Egyptian who succeeded in turning the Israelites from polytheism into following his monotheistic religion. Unfortunately, Moses was killed in the desert but according to Freud his fame lived on in the history of Israel.

Some details in Moses’ life that Freud mentions are plausible and obviously correct, such as his Egyptian-sounding name (Mose) and the brief period of monotheism in Egyptian history under Akhenaten or Amenhotep IV during the 18th dynasty.

But most of Freud’s ideas would not merit the use of the word theory in its scientific sense. Like so much else in Freudian thinking, his attempt to explain the birth of monotheism amounts to pure speculation.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) admits that he borrowed some concepts from Charles Darwin whom he obviously admired. In an earlier work called Totem and Taboo (1912) he formulated a scenario about the birth of religion.

In Moses and Monotheism Freud says, ”From Darwin I borrowed the hypothesis that all men originally lived in small hordes; each of the hordes stood under the rule of an older male, who governed by brute force, appropriated all the females, and belaboured or killed all the young males, including his own sons.” (p. 168).

His view relied on the evolutionary idea that religion gradually evolved from a simple beginning towards a more institutionalised form. This, however, is not supported by any evidence. The data is more supportive of the biblical view of monotheism degenerating into polytheism.

Fortunately, Freud was bold enough to admit that his view was only a hypothesis. It does not merit being called a theory since it basically is just another just so story.


Freud, Sigmund. 1939. Moses and Monotheism. Translated by Katherine Jones. New York: Vintage Books.